The new chief executive of R&R Ice Cream knows how to operate in challenging environments. He spoke to Business Editor Bernard Ginns.
Ibrahim Najafi’s father rose from humble beginnings to become one of the biggest wheat farmers in Iraq.
His success in business inspired his son, who is the new chief executive of R&R Ice Cream in Yorkshire.
“Iraq as we come to know now is not just one country. It is almost a massive federal state and different ethnic backgrounds. A list that long,” says Najafi, opening his arms to emphasise the point.
“But my father could trade and deal with every single one of them.”
As head of Europe’s largest own-label ice cream manufacturer, he understands the importance of being able to adapt and operate in many different environments.
“For me that is so key because there is not one size that fits all. If you are going to build a truly European and a global business you need to make sure you understand what’s happening in each market.
“You need to get the best of all those businesses and make sure what we do in the UK we can take to Germany but do it in a German way. The same thing in France, the same thing in Italy, Poland and tomorrow another country.”
The 56-year-old was promoted to the top job last July as PAI Partners completed its £714m acquisition of R&R. He joined the business in 1998, when it was known as Richmond Ice Cream, as factory manager for the Leeming Bar site.
Najafi was appointed operations director a year later, joined the board in 2000 and became chief operating officer in 2009. He is credited with the rapid growth of the business in Germany, Poland, France and Italy.
This year, R&R will complete the integration of Lancashire-based Fredericks Dairies, which has the licence to produce brands such as Cadbury, Del Monte and Vimto. It has restructured production facilities across Europe, leading to the closure of factories in Leeds, France and Germany. Najafi says the group is now actively looking at potential new acquisitions.
“M and A is part of our DNA. In the last three years I have been visiting factories all the way from Russia to Scandinavia down to Spain and the Middle East. We are looking at all those opportunities.
“R&R is no longer that small business. We are now truly a European business. In the future, we will be a global business.”
His mantra is “understand, implement and then pick fruit”. He wants to make sure that every country plays its part in the group, like ingredients in a recipe.
“The French are fantastic at making sorbets. The Italians are making gelato in a different way; they have got the best ingredients. The Germans have got fantastic processes. The Poles have got flexibilities galore. The UK is great at category management. You put all that together and you come up with something very special.”
R&R’s brands including Nestlé, Skinny Cow, YooMoo frozen yoghurt, Kelly’s of Cornwall and Disney. Most recently, it launched a range of Mondelez International brands including Milka, Toblerone, Daim, Oreo and Philadelphia. Private label, meanwhile, gives the business scale, says Najafi.
“Ice cream just puts a smile on everybody’s face. We are lucky because it is a magnet of a category. Like other categories it is all about change, innovation and excitement. That’s what the consumer wants to see every year. That’s why investing in our processes, people and resources to make sure that we keep constantly developing that category.”
Najafi grew up in Mosul, an ancient city in northern Iraq. He graduated from Mosul University with a degree in electrical engineering and a masters in engineering management.
He arrived in England in 1986, worked in software sales, got his PhD in electrical and electronic engineering from Cranfield University, chose a career in food manufacturing and in 1992 joined Buckingham Foods, a chilled food producer. He started on the factory floor.
“I am fighter. If there’s a recession in the country and there’s no jobs, a lot of people will sit and say ‘I’m a doctorate of engineering and I have to start here’,” he says, raising his hand to indicate a medium level. “I don’t mind. I will start here because I know I’m going to get there,” he adds, dropping his hand and then lifting it above his head.
Najafi worked in various junior production roles making sandwiches, snacks, hot dogs at Buckingham. His bosses could see his production lines were running ahead of everybody else’s and he quickly progressed up the ladder to become factory manager.
Najafi describes himself as the “master of shorter intervals of control”.
“We need to find out what happened yesterday today rather than wait for the end of the week to have surprises.”
He starts his week at R&R by finding out how the different parts of the business are performing. “And then it’s all about making sure for the next month and next year we are on course,” he adds.
In business as in life, challenges can arise at unexpected moments. For instance, the board is looking at the impact that upheaval in Ukraine could have on the business.
R&R also had to contend with a contamination scare when pain relief tablets were found within two cones made for Tesco. Najafi says R&R has “raised the bar” with stricter standards and controls following the incident last November.
Changing social attitudes can also present threats to business. A recent Daily Mail headline proclaimed that ‘Sugar is the new tobacco’.
“These things are always going to be there. The most important thing is the communication to the consumers,” says Najafi, highlighting the intensive efforts made towards clear labelling and clean ingredients in products.